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  • Writer's pictureMohit Verma

Choosing an Appropriate Graduate Advisor

(or, how I learned the importance of taking feedback)

Special Guest Article by Professor Abby Engelberth

Professor Engelberth advises potential graduate students. Photo Credit: Tom Campbell

So you want to go to graduate school. Well, that is a terrific decision! Now it’s time for the next big decision, and one that may make or break your academic career. Choosing an advisor for your graduate studies is a terribly important decision. “Yeah, but it’s just a professor and I get along with most of my professors” is something you might say. But your graduate advisor (and I will assume you are looking at a Ph.D. or M.S./Ph.D. track) will be the person that you will rely on to get you where you need to be for the next four to six years. Not only does this person need to work in an area you are interested in, but they will be your boss, your confidante, your mentor… your world. You need to be able to respect and heed their feedback – which is not something you will be able to do with all people.

My Own Experience

Here is a bit of my experience with advisors. When I was first starting my graduate studies, I was a bit lost. I had a few internships as an undergrad, but the work and prospects never clicked with me. I knew I really liked school (hence why I am still here), so I decided I’d keep going and apply for graduate school. I applied for the master’s program in CBE at Iowa State because that is where I did my undergraduate and I loved it (plus, the person I was dating planned to do the same and we had no plans of breaking up… yet). I was accepted into the MS program with the thought that I might stay for my Ph.D. (but I wasn’t nearly smart enough for a Ph.D. so it would take a lot of convincing). Just as my M.S. was getting underway said person and I did break up and I was adrift; I didn’t have a clear answer on what I wanted to do professionally or personally. My M.S. advisor was highly intelligent and truly skilled in his area, but he had a drive that I couldn’t match at the time because my world was off-axis. I didn’t perform as well as I normally do and I didn’t know how to ask for help. Then my M.S. advisor took a sabbatical and I made it through as best as I could. His sabbatical (and my first foray into remote meetings) coincided with the semester I found and fell for my spouse. This brought back some drive and purpose and I was able to make it out with a non-thesis Masters. I did realize that I was smart enough to go for the Ph.D. and applied to a few programs around the country. While I got along with my M.S. advisor, I didn’t take feedback from him well because I didn’t think I could ever be as successful as he so why bother (or that is my retroactive armchair analysis of the situation).

I was accepted at the University of Arkansas and was thrilled to meet all the awesome faculty when I visited in the spring of 2006. I met some real smart cookies and knew I would have a tough decision to make. My first semester in my Ph.D. program was devoted to choosing an advisor. Little did I know how important that decision would be. By October or so, I had narrowed the field down to three faculty. I was focused on their projects but not on how they were as people or supervisors. I eventually chose the person whose research interests aligned most closely with mine (though all the projects presented would have been cool), but I also happened to choose the person that was the best fit personality-wise. My Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Danielle Julie Carrier, is truly a lifelong mentor, a sponsor, and one of the people most dear to my heart. Throughout my graduate career, she was encouraging, honest, fair, and blunt with feedback when necessary. I was able to learn so much from her because I knew her advice always came from a place of simply trying to improve the work. She worked with me to solve problems in the lab and gave constructive feedback on my writing. She gave me autonomy but stepped in when waters were a bit too choppy. I am working towards modeling her behavior as an advisor and I’m not even close.

During my Ph.D. studies, I realized how important it was to choose the right advisor because I saw some of the hurdles students were having to deal with regarding advisors I could have chosen. One of the options was just not a great fit research-wise, but was still a great person. The other would have afforded interesting work, but was not a great fit person-wise (I wouldn’t take feedback well if it were yelled at me and I’d be a real curmudgeon if I was expected to be in the lab on Christmas day). This is when I started to realize how important it was to build relationships in science and that personal rapport has an impact.

Interviewing Potential Advisors

If possible, visit the campus and the program to which you have been accepted. Though, as I am writing this in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic where social distancing is the norm on campuses across the nation I realize you may not be able to do this at the moment. But if the world were normal, then go ahead and visit. You will want to meet with various people in the program to get a feel of how you might fit. Talk with the staff to gauge how happy they are to work there. Chat with current graduate students to see what kinds of events and opportunities are available for students. The next people you need to chat with are: potential advisor and their current students.

When you meet with a potential advisor you are looking for a few things.

1) What type of research does this person conduct?

a) Does it align with your interests? You may not know exactly what you want to do, but does what this person work on fit with what you think is cool?

b) What projects are on the horizon and what, if any, projects will be retired. If this person is currently working on an area you like but they are looking to move elsewhere, that can factor into your decision.

2) What are this person’s expectations? You want to look at the long term and everyday expectations.

a) Long term: How does this person envision your dissertation looking like? How many publications are expected to graduate? Will the publications be part of the dissertation or in addition to? How often will you attend a conference or scientific meeting?

b) Everyday: What hours do they expect you to work? Do you need to arrive by a certain time every day? Stay until a certain time? Do they have weekly group meetings or individual meetings? Do they encourage you to just pop by when you have a question? How quickly do they expect you to respond to emails?

3) What type of feedback do they give?

a) How long does it normally take to publish a paper (i.e. how many back-and-forth drafts are normal)? Do they prefer you to print the manuscript so they can write it on directly or will they want to upload it to a shared folder in the cloud? How long of a turn-around time is normal (just so you know, if they work fast, you should too).

4) And finally, what kind of a vibe do you get from this person?

a) This is the most unscientific measurement I will advocate for, but this is a time where you have to trust your gut. What kind of impression did you get when meeting with this person? While their style and demeanor do not need to match yours, you will need to decide if you will be able to take feedback from this person. They will help guide you through experiments, simulations, presentations, manuscripts, and interviews. Do you feel like you can trust and pushback on this person when needed? Now remember, the feedback won’t always be rosy. Sometimes it will be blunt or even a little terse (this is a human being after all and, as I’ve learned, faculty have a gazillion things to do on any given day).

b) I have seen students mismatch with advisors for any number of reasons.Sometimes the advisor is on the younger side (hey, we were all young at one point) and the student has difficulty trusting the word of a younger person.I’ve seen students, both male and female, dismiss the advice and feedback of their female advisor because they don’t trust she knows what she is talking about. Or sometimes there is an incident wherein your advisor disagrees with you and you decide that they are no longer trustworthy – but maybe that indicates that you never really trusted them in the first place. When choosing an advisor, you do need to understand and potentially overcome your own biases.

The next people you need to talk with on your visit are the current students of any potential advisors. Preferably you will do this without the advisor present. Use this interaction to get a feel for how the group works together. Does the advisor treat you all equally or do they play favorites? Do they actually have weekly meetings or did they just tell you that? What is expected during the weekly meeting*? Does the advisor expect you to watch their kids or sleep in the lab (while both are highly wrong, it is not unprecedented)? Do all the current students seem to get along with said advisor? Are they all able to take feedback?

*Just a little advice from me on weekly meetings (or any meeting with any supervisor ever), come prepared with any documents or print-outs that will help move the conversation forward and bring something with which you can take notes. Your supervisor will have multiple projects simultaneously underway and will not recall what exactly they told you… write it down!

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Making the Choice

For me the decision boils down to two things: is the project interesting and can you actually take feedback from the PI (professional instigator, no that’s not right, um, it’s professor impostor, yikes, that cuts a little close… Primary investigator, whew, I knew I’d get there eventually). There are many resources out there you can use to determine how to make this decision. But honestly, the biggest and most intangible piece is whether you will be able to trust what this person says and use it to improve. We all want our students to improve and leave our tutelage as stars, but we don’t all have the same methods or approach to get them there. You need to find someone with an approach you can be on board with.

Some other resources:

“The PhD journey: how to choose a good supervisor” by Matthew Killeya (2008)

“Choosing the Right Graduate Advisor is Essential to Academic Success” by Staff Writer (2017)

“What matters in a Ph.D. adviser? Here’s what the research says” by Katie Langin (2019)

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